My masters advisor handed me a bunch of papers and an old dissertation. After week 1, I have hardly managed to read one paper. He asked me to focus on a specific part of the project and I have read the relevant paper but I have not been able to read others. Many weeks have gone past and I feel like I am already a disappointment to him.

I seem to either concentrate on reading papers or doing specific tasks related to the project (e.g. try to understand specific details and implement the knowledge to infer something). I feel for the project to be something fruitful I would need to read a lot of papers, keeping record of the ideas that I came across while reading which can be used in the project, and also reference them while writing my dissertation.

How can I manage time better to read papers and other project related work given that I don't have any coursework or other commitments? How can I keep record of reading to fulfill the aforementioned needs?

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    Why is it taking you more than a week to read a paper? Is there something in the paper you are stuck on? If so, what is it that is getting you stuck? Are you trying to understand every possible aspect and corner of the paper and following citations down rabbit holes, or just trying to get a general idea first? Are you doing other things besides reading the paper? Hard to give suggestions if it isn't clear what the issues are.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 30, 2021 at 17:50
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    Also, what does your advisor say? Apr 30, 2021 at 17:54
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    @BryanKrause: In my area of mathematics, I wouldn't expect a grad student to be able to read and understand a significant paper in less than a month. Doing peer review for a moderate length paper takes me 30-40 hours of work. Apr 30, 2021 at 18:13
  • @Alexander Sure, that's why I asked the follow up questions. Reading a paper to get some idea of the general idea and field might not require that level of depth, OP may need only to determine whether the paper is worth reading further.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 1, 2021 at 3:05

1 Answer 1


Since scientific and math writers are writing for experts, and in fact specialists, it can be very difficult to read papers as you are getting started. Specialists share a mindset that implies that they can leave a lot unsaid. The author of a paper is likely very familiar with all of the papers cited, and you are not. This makes it especially difficult.

To understand a given paper it may be necessary to review many of the referenced papers first. At least the abstracts of those papers. It might be necessary to become familiar with some terminology that you aren't used to. Wikipedia can be a big help in many fields, actually.

But if you are starting out as a masters student then your education up to now has been mostly as a generalist, not a specialist. Don't get overly discouraged, but it takes a lot of work to build up your knowledge base to the point that you can understand a paper.

Dissertations are usually a bit easier, since candidates are expected to be a bit more complete than is true for published articles that depend on earlier work.

It is probably easier now than when I needed to spend hours in the math library, searching for referenced papers and then the papers referenced in those, etc, until I got some idea about what was being said. Now you can find a lot of those older papers online. The understanding hasn't gotten easier, of course.

But eventually, you grasp the specialized language and also the way of thinking of experts in your field. Lots of hours.

If you can ask questions of your advisor or others you can shorten the understanding process quite a bit.

As you read, take a lot of notes. Write down key ideas, of course, but also write down questions you still have. Then try to answer those questions either with more reading or by asking of others. If you find an answer in written work, it is good to write down the citation. You may want it later.

An effective researcher will also write down questions that aren't answered in the paper being read. This gives you an opportunity to extend the work.

Think of the knowledge you need as a tree that you need to explore. You need to go both wide and deep to acquire the understanding.

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